A funny thing happened when we brought our second daughter home from the hospital.
Seemingly overnight, our two-year-old firstborn seemed to grow up.
Suddenly, she was speaking in full sentences, fetching me diapers and wipes up two flights of stairs when the baby pooped in the basement, and potty-training in a day.
Somehow, through the transition of welcoming a new person into our family, my husband and I started treating our first daughter like she was older than her two years.
And the result?
Became the worst parenting mistake of our lives.
When I look back at those days, I am filled with a regret so strong I wish I could turn back time and shake some sense into myself.
What are you thinking? I want to yell at my then-mother-self. She’s only two!!
I regret those days spent angry at her because she was deliberately sassing me and thwarting my efforts to get her to nap.
I regret those nights spent whispering to my husband about her acting up during the day, certain that she was just testing my patience.
I regret any and all of the thoughts I had that she “should have known better” and every time I reprimanded her because she was the big sister, the one in charge, the one I blamed for every fight between daughters.
Looking at our daughter now, a six-year-old-going-on-sixteen, it’s obvious that the way we have treated her has impacted the person she has become — she yearns for more responsibility, makes lists for fun, checks off days on her calendar, and plans her activities with organizational skills that rival my own.
I watch her, her little face taking on the mask of someone older, and I want to weep.
Because it’s all my fault.
I swore, once upon a time, that I would never let my daughter experience the plight of being the first-born girl. As the oldest in my immediate family and respective collection of cousins, I was always the one “left in charge.” The responsible one, the one the adults shuttled the babies to and crooned, “Isn’t Chaunie so good with kids?” while inside, I was yearning to just go play, to have a second to myself without watching little kids.
I was labeled and molded from the moment I was born, simply on the happenstance of being female and first.
And now, I’m doing the same thing to my daughter.
Somewhere around our third child, my husband and I both realized, in a rush of horror, how truly little a two-year-old is. I mean, really, two years old is still a baby, in every sense of the word. They are too young for that kind of responsibility, to be deliberately out to get us as parents, to expect to be on perfect all the time. Having just welcomed our fourth daughter a few weeks after our son turned two, it seems impossible that he is the same age that she was when we became a family of four. “She just seemed so old,” we say to ourselves. “But she was just a baby!”
I know enough to realize that it is partly personality based, partly genetically based, partly because she is a girl and girls and boys never seem to develop the same ways, but it hasn’t stopped my lingering regrets and my constant effort now to slow her down, to stop the inevitable growing-up that we set in motion that day we first handed her a swaddled newborn to kiss.
And yes, I know that in a lot of ways, the way I was treated as a firstborn girl, always older, always with more expectations, went a long ways in shaping who I am and the successes I have enjoyed out of life so far, and I’m sure my daughter will be no different.
But still, when I look around and see other parents who are in the midst of it, who don’t realize how truly little their babies are, who are in a rush to have them out of diapers and who will someday look back at their firstborns and regret, I just want to stop them and say …
Please, please, just let them be little.
Because someday, you will regret making them grow up faster than they needed to.